The playoff version of Matt Cain hasn’t much resembled the regular season Matt Cain.
For the fourth straight season, Cain browbeat opposing National League batters and is a very big reason why the San Francisco Giants are back in the playoffs. In fact, you could argue that 2012 was his very best performance of his eight year career.
Cain posted a career low ERA and WHIP at 2.79 and 1.04, respectively. His 22% strikeout rate was the highest of his career and his 5.8% walk rate the lowest of his career. Despite Cain continuing to be the poster boy for pitchers that confound FIP (highest NL FDP, in fact), it appeared that he had taken a measurable step forward in a number of critical areas and at least made a questionable off-season contract extension not look so bad.
But so far in the postseason, Cain has had underwhelming results. It might have a lot to do with his slider.
First of all, we can probably dismiss the idea that he’s tired. Cain might very well feel tired and achy when he rolls out of bed, but the zip on his fastball doesn’t indicate there’s any deleterious effect of a long season on his arm. He averaged 91.2 MPH on his fastball all season long and his last two playoff starts he was spot-on at 91.2 MPH in both. Check.
Cain has leaned increasingly on his slider over the last several seasons. PitchF/X puts his slider usage from 2010 to 2012 at 9.5% to 15.8% to 20%. And for good reason. His slider was 1.85 runs above average per 100 pitches thrown in 2011, making it one of the better sliders in the NL and easily his best pitch. He increased its usage in 2012, and among National League starters with at least 160 innings pitched, Cain’s slider was the second most valuable at 2.35 runs above average per 100 pitches.
A couple of things are different in 2012 relative to his slider, however. His release point has shifted to a more three-quarters delivery in 2012, which has resulted in a dramatic improvement in vertical movement, no doubt impacting the effectiveness of the pitch. Here’s an overlay of his 2011 and 2012 slider release points:
In his first playoff start against the Cincinnati Reds, Cain threw just five innings, gave up five hits, three earned runs, walked a batter, hit a batter, struck out four, and gave up two home runs. The Reds are a pretty decent offense, so this wasn’t a terrible outing, but it wasn’t vintage Matt Cain. The first five sliders he threw were balls, and it was apparent he didn’t have a very good feel for it from the outset. Overall, he threw sixteen sliders on the day, 50% of them for strikes, but zero of them produced a swing and a miss. On the season, Cain’s slider had produced almost a 13% whiff rate.
Looking at his pitch locations, he was much more up in the zone with his slider – including this one (note the target and the result):
In his start on October 11 versus the Reds, he was good enough to win thanks to Buster Posey, but he wasn’t much more effective. He threw 5.2 innings, gave up six hits, three earned runs, walked two, hit a batter, and struck out five. He threw fully 35% sliders but he generated about a foot less vertical movement than he had on the season. What’s interesting is his release point in these two playoff starts much more closely resembles that of 2011 than 2012 – back to a little more upright than what you see above:
The similarities of the vertical movement and the spin rate he’s generating with the same 2011 release point are pretty interesting:
|Vertical Movement||Spin Rate|
As you well know, the sample is small, but so far in reverting back to the 2011 release point, he’s getting basically the same version of a slider — which isn’t necessarily a bad slider, but it’s just not the great slider he’s had all year.
Matt Cain certainly has other pitches in his repertoire, and they’re pretty darn good ones. But if he’s planning on using his slider upwards of one-third of the time, he might want to tinker with his release point to get it back to where it was throughout most of 2012. St. Louis is a pretty heavy right-handed lineup, and Cain is almost certain to use his slider frequently. Watch for his vertical movement and location early on, as it will probably give you an idea of how things are going to go for him and the Giants.
Data from Texasleaguers.com.